Heathrow’s New Runway is Sort Of, Kind Of Approved

British Airways, LHR - London/Heathrow

If you think airport projects move slowly here in the US, just take a look at the UK. This week the semi-go-ahead was finally given to a new third runway at Heathrow. This has been in discussion for decades, and it’s long overdue. But we aren’t at the end of the line yet. I’m still not convinced this will happen.

The UK has dug its heels in for years when it comes to adding airport capacity. That, among other things, has led to a shift away from Heathrow as being nearly as important as it used to be in the global air travel system. London has a lot of airports, but its two most important, Heathrow and Gatwick, are bursting at the seams. Heathrow’s two runways have been at capacity for years, and its status as a global hub has waned. Gatwick, which is known as a leisure travel mecca, has had a tremendous resurgence with the likes of easyJet and Norwegian launching aircraft off its single runway all day long, leaving it near capacity.

This most recent decision to add a runway by the government was technically between Gatwick and Heathrow, but in the past there has been discussion about an additional runway at Stansted as well. The obvious answer is to add runways wherever they’re needed, and that includes Heathrow and Gatwick along with Stansted. In fact, Ryanair CEO Michael Leary said effectively that in his response to this decision that Heathrow had won. But any growth in runways in London is nearly impossible to achieve. So settling for only one runway at Heathrow? That’s still a giant leap forward in a country that has done nothing but try to harm air travel.

Of course, this decision isn’t really a final decision. That would be way too simple. The government will take this to the public for “consultations” before making a final decision, though it says that won’t stop it from happening… sure. Then more than a year from now (next winter, sometime) they’ll take this to Parliament to vote. Then and only then can they move forward, assuming the hundreds of lawsuits that will inevitably be filed haven’t stopped it. We’re a decade away from seeing the runway, at best.

Is it likely to actually occur? Well, I’ve given up trying to predict. People in West London are against it, because, well, they don’t want more noise. But people elsewhere in the country are certainly for it, because it will likely enable more connections into the capital from those other places. So, if the government keeps its word and pushes forward, it sounds like Parliament shouldn’t be an issue. Maybe by 2018 we’ll have an idea if this will actually happen. Or maybe not.

In the meantime, we’ll see all kinds of anger and fighting and jockeying for position on how this should (or shouldn’t) happen. British Airways, the largest user of Heathrow, has already made it clear that it wants a new runway… if it doesn’t have to pay for it. This stance is actually pretty shrewd. The reality is that for British Airways, it has more to lose by seeing an additional runway. At this point, it controls a tremendous amount of slots at the airport, and it doesn’t have to worry about new entrant competition there. With a new runway, that changes. EasyJet has already indicated that it will fly to Heathrow if the new runway opens.

London Heathrow New Proposed Runway

So British Airways can straddle that line. It can say that it wants a new runway; it’s great for the nation. But by saying that the airlines and consequently travelers shouldn’t have to pay for it, it pushes it right back on the government or the private operator to figure out how else to pay the billions and billions of dollars involved. And we are talking about billions. Look at the map above and you can see that not only do wide swaths of people have to be relocated, but they have to bury the M25 motorway in a tunnel. (Either that or they are going to build the runway on a ramp over the M25. Seriously.) I can’t imagine this not hitting the rate base at all, so BA can raise a fuss without looking like the bad guy. It’ll be doing it in the name of low costs and fares. Good thinking.

In the end, London needs more airport capacity. And if they’re only going to build one runway, I do think Heathrow is the obvious choice. But how do you pay for it? It’s already an absurdly expensive airport from which to operate. Will there need to be a two-tiered system that allows for some sort of low-cost competition? It’s almost like forcing low-cost housing when you build a condo project. You can be sure British Airways will not be happy if something like that happens. All I really know is that I believe nothing until I actually see the runway being built. Sounds like a good Dorkfest… for the blog’s gold anniversary in 2056.

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18 comments on “Heathrow’s New Runway is Sort Of, Kind Of Approved

  1. It’s not just airports, we have an ongoing project to improve access for more trains to London Bridge station. It’s called Thameslink 2000. (Yip!)

    The Heathrow decision is a complete U turn by the ruling Conservative party.

    One of their MPs has already resigned.

    Watch this space!

  2. Can Heathrow increase throughput of passengers if a new runway is built, without having to expand the terminals? Any idea by how much?

    Otherwise, the fight for the runway will be shortly followed by a fight for additional terminal space.

  3. I seem to recall the original proposal was for an 8,000′ runway but now it seems to be closer to 12000′, much more usable for long distance flights than an 8000′ one. $22b is certainly a record for one runway, I imagine some countries could build a whole new airport for that. Pity this puts a damper on 2nd runways for Gatwick and Stansted though.

  4. This will literally never, ever happen. I can think of at least two other times in the last 15 years that a third runway at Heathrow has been “approved.” Fifty years from now the UK government will still be arguing over blueprints, and the entire country will be changing planes in Amsterdam and Dubai to get where they need to go.

    The UK is the most pathetic developed country there is when it comes to infrastructure and keeping up with growth. Building Terminal 5 took twenty years. Adding a new runway at Manchester took fifteen. London’s Crossrail should have been built in the 1970s and the Thameslink project is years behind. There’s been one new motorway built in the last two decades, and it had to be tolled to get built.

    The US is no angel when it comes to building infrastructure, but the UK makes us look like paragons of efficiency.

    1. I was amazed at the sad state of motorways throughout the UK, but especially in Wales. The UK has such incredible population density, it should be incredibly cheap to make great motorways. In contrast, I live in Kansas, USA where we have a population density of 7 people per square mile and I have a four-lane motorway a few minutes from my house that gets little enough use that I could stroll across it without rushing in the peak times of the day. But as I drove my family all over the UK and Ireland, I was constantly frustrated by low speed limits and 2 lane roads everywhere.

      1. As an American who has been living in the London area for 9 years, I am very glad NOT to have poorly used, 4-lane highways nearby. What a waste of money.

        When a country has population density, it makes an extensive train and bus network viable so that I don’t need my car much. Kansas should try that.

  5. Great map Cranky.

    I used to live under the flight path in the constituency of the MP who has resigned over this. I don’t think the Government will be worried about the resignation, he’s a very pro environment MP who always said that he would resign. He also likes the publicity.

    You’re right that this’ll take 10 years at least. But I think it’s more likely than recent announcements, because of Brexit. The Government are determined to be internationalist to mitigate the downsides of Brexit, and they think a runway will demonstrate this. They’ll bribe MPs with funding for various other infrastructure projects (which have the bonus of helping stave off recession), and they’ve been careful to follow due process so will succeed in court.

    So I reckon your silver anniversary dockfest is a better target.

    But I also agree with O’Leary that they should also allow runways wherever the airport operators can get local permission.

  6. I’ll believe it when I see ground being broken. By that time far more travelers will be connecting via other European airports or using others so it might be a long haul to expand with the right traffic mix. Having said that there has been a chronic shortage of runways in the UK for decades, with good cases for Gatwick and Stansted. Whether Brexit will turn out to be the tipping point for all of this remains to be seen.

  7. Successive U.K. governments have methodically worked against the growth of aviation. The issue of noise pollution has not been handled adequately for existing runways, and that has led to the increasing opposition. BA’s point on the costs is valid, not-with-standing your view that expansion is not in their interests. I believe LHR is presently served by 3 UK airports – traffic from the remainder has been driven away by astronomical costs. LHR costs are twice those (or more) of all European airports after looking at the top 5. (The most expensive are LHR, MAN, FRA, MUC & DUS).
    It was interesting to attend the British – Irish Airports Expo in BHX this year and listen to successive airline and airport executives wax lyrically about the Irish government and how they had the far reaching policy of eliminating punitive airport taxes to stimulate growth. (Admittedly under pressure from various airlines).
    Is it any wonder that Willie Walsh engineered the acquisition of Aer Lingus? By doing so, he is providing an excellent alternative for those customers wanting to travel to the U.S. – and with the added advantage that they can clear U.S. government formalities in DUB (or SNN).
    Your target date for a Dorkfest in 2056 to discuss looks about right!

    1. Looking at arrivals info I see flights from Manchester, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle, and Leeds (I actually got tired and stopped looking, so there might be more). So seems a bit more than three UK airports with connections to LHR.

  8. If they tear down the White Horse on Bath Road I will be particularly disappointed! It always ends up being my last pub prior to departure, and I have at least three lumps on my head to attest to my not paying attention when walking into the bar.

    1. The White Horse will be toast. It’s a very nice “country pub” only 5 minutes by (free) bus from T5. But that’ll be flattened for taxiways and either a new terminal or annex to T5 (or Heathrow West as it will be known. That will be a shame. For those flying from what will be Heathrow East (T2), the Three Magpies will likely survive.

      The dorkfest will need to be held in what’s left of the village of Harmondsworth. The pub may survive but it’ll be right next to Runway 3. Definitely more refined than an In-N-Out. :-)

  9. Yes, LHR is expensive, but the people have spoken, they use it. The demand is there, and basic economics says who price hike a good with high demand.

    CF.. your take on BA is right on. They posture like they want the runway, but have no desire for it; enables a lot of competition, not to mention loss of current slot-value. So they will campaign as “we don’t want anything other than the perfect solution” (i.e. runway 3 with no costs), knowing fully well that doesn’t exist.

  10. Procrastination will prevail, as always.

    Funny how in my lifetime, a ‘decision’ has been made for a 3rd runways at LHR numerous times, but then over-ruled – and yet ‘Brexit means Brexit’. What on earth have we become in Britain?

  11. I honestly wonder if in the same timeframe it would take to move everything and build a third runway at Heathrow. If a second runway at Gatwick with a high speed right into downtown London could be finished. If I recall, that was the issue with the second runway at Gatwick. But in the end, I wonder if they can do it faster and cheaper. But I bet it will easily be 10-15 years before this whole process will even begin due to bureaucratic red tape.

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